Faces of Food Systems Planning: Erin Hardie Hale

ErinHardieHale_headshotErin Hardie Hale is a Research Associate at University of New Hampshire, which coordinates the NH Food Alliance that is developing a statewide food systems strategy, which is connected to the broader New England Food Vision.

This interview was conducted via email and phone by Erica Campbell of the Vermont Farm to Plate Network, and member of the APA-FIG Leadership Team.

What is your current position, and how does your organization engage in food system planning efforts? I am a Research Associate at the NH Food Alliance. The NH Food Alliance aims to be an informed, connected, and active food systems network. We are developing a statewide food systems strategy, which is connected to the broader New England Food Vision. We convene working groups, regional and statewide gatherings, and other opportunities for participants to build relationships that add value to their work. We communicate and share information and resources about the NH food system with the network and general public regularly and in multiple ways. We also collaborate to implement, monitor, and adapt the action priorities identified by network participants.

How long have you held this position? Since 2013

What do you enjoy about your work? I find working in food systems exciting, because figuring out how to feed ourselves is at the core of so many critical issues, including environmental sustainability, social justice, community health, and economic viability.

I also find that people who work in the food system – from producers and entrepreneurs to food access advocates and policymakers – are passionate about what they do. The NH Food Alliance is all about encouraging collaboration in the food system and I love working with and learning from people who love what they do!

Similarly, what do you find challenging about your work? The complexity of the food system means there’s no one way to address challenges that will satisfy everyone, and finding common ground takes time, trust, and relationship building. There is a constant tension in our network between what many people see as the time intensive work of collaborative planning and building relationships and the need to take action or “do something” concrete.

What areas of the food system do you focus on in your work? The NH Food Alliance connects individuals, organizations, and businesses across the food system so people in sectors that don’t traditionally collaborate can learn from each other and work together toward shared goals. Our first initiative, the Farm, Fish, and Food Enterprise Viability Initiative, is the result of over two years of building our network, listening to hundreds of NH residents, and synthesizing dozens of reports. The common thread emerging from this work is that thriving local businesses are at the heart of our food system and can create cascading benefits for us all. Because we approach viability from a food systems perspective, our goals and approaches go beyond improving the bottom lines for individual entrepreneurs. Instead, we’re looking to create the conditions that support thriving businesses through education, market development, improved food access, and land and sea resource protection.

In the work that you perform, where does addressing food systems issues fit in? How has this changed over time? Everything we do addresses food system issues!

Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? Not by training! I have a PhD in agriculture and science education from UC Davis with a focus on coalition building and collaborative learning and research between farmers and conservation groups in California’s Central Valley. I also have a master’s degree from UC Davis in International Agricultural Development, have worked on farms in Oregon and NH, and have extensive experience in agricultural training and education, working with farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities around the globe, from California and Kenya to Bolivia and Egypt.

What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? As I mentioned before, building trust between stakeholders with different perspectives has been a big challenge. There was some skepticism early on about why the UNH Sustainability Institute was taking the lead to coordinate the network building and planning process and so it was difficult at first to get all of the key stakeholders and leaders in the room talking with us. We worked hard to distribute leadership across different groups, make strategic connections, and be very transparent about our process. We also chose to focus our first initiative on viability, in part, because it was an issue that groups across the food system could unite behind.

Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? I learned everything I know on the job. Curtis Ogden, our process facilitator, and his organization, the Interaction Institute for Social Change, had a profound impact on the way we approached our network building and planning effort. We’ve also had a very supportive group of other state planners in New England that meets in a monthly Community of Practice call hosted by VT Farm to Plate coordinators, so we were able to learn from other states like Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island that were ahead of us in the process or doing things differently.   Food Solutions New England has also provided an important regional framework and avenue for thinking about planning beyond state borders.

Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? What makes you successful in your work? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning related work? I don’t think that we necessarily need new technologies or scientific research to tell us how to grow healthy food and get it to everyone who needs it in an ethical and responsible way. What we really need to know how to do is share ideas and learn from each other. People are making it work in small and big ways all over the region; learning about what works in one place and adapting it for another and supporting that innovation and collaboration is a driving force of the NH Food Alliance.